Joan, Babs & Shelagh too

Joan, Babs & Shelagh too is a difficult play. Attempting to explore the life and career of director Joan Littlewood – who served in large part as the leader and driving force behind Theatre Workshop, actress and writer Gemskii takes her audience with her on a journey through the rapidly changing theatrical landscape of 20th century Britain. Fully embracing Littlewood’s attraction to the Brechtian, the show serves in large parts as a teaching opportunity about the importance of Littlewood, whom the show argues is one of the most important figures in British theatrical history.

A show with a lot of potential, if somewhat unrealised.

Gemskii herself is a marvelous master of ceremonies and evidently an exceptionally talented actress. As a one-woman show, the audience’s entire focus never has opportunity to shift away from Gemskii, yet she never wilts under pressure. Shifting rapidly between the major players in Littlewoods life, she manages to successfully embody each of her characters, with physical and vocal shifts helping to prevent them from blending together, as is so often the case in one actor shows.

Unfortunately, despite having a fantastic central performance, the show’s format and narrative serve to dampen it somewhat. The show presupposes a number of things about its audience: that you know about Littlewood, her work, and most importantly that you understand her relevance to modern day theatre. Yet while we are repeatedly told of Littlewoods’s importance, we are never really told why. As we are shown major events in the director’s career, such as her involvement in Oh, What a Lovely War!, links are never made between this work and the audience’s own experiences, showing how one impacted the other. Considering the way in which the actress explains the scenes before they occur, more could have been done to make this relevancy more explicit. It’s the difference between saying “This woman is important’ and “This woman is important because of x, y and z”.

Similarly, the show looks back on Littlewood’s career through a lens that is perhaps too rose-tinted. Although we are told that Joan was a “bastard”, we are never really shown enough of her bite. Even when other characters are used to reflect upon Joan’s life, her talent is constantly used to justify her cruelty. More could have been done to explore this aspect of her personality, rather than just using her sharp tongue as a source of humour.

Technically the show is also a mixed bag. On the one hand, the show’s use of title cards for scene transitions was neat and useful, allowing us to place where in Joan’s life we were at this point. However, the volume of music used in sections where Gemskii sung was far too loud, forcing the actress to fight to be heard at times.

If you’re an audience member coming to Joan, Babs & Shelagh too who already knows the background, you will almost definitely appreciate the show for what it is, with Gemskii’s engaging persona and wonderful characterisation being worth the price of admission. Yet without this foreknowledge, the show lacks a level of insight into Littlewoods’ legacy that you may have been looking to find. A show with a lot of potential, if somewhat unrealised.

Reviews by Alexander Gillespie

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The Blurb

Joan Littlewood contributed as much to British theatre as Shakespeare! Why is she not remembered? Is it because she was a communist, or a woman, or because she was downright rude? Joan, Babs & Shelagh too is a complete history of this fantastic woman and her collision with Barbara Windsor and Shelagh Delaney.

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